Today in labor history: Black farmer-union leader murdered by sheriff’s posse

After leading fierce battles on behalf of sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Alabama, Ralph Gray, a leader of the Croppers’ and Farm Workers Union in Tallapoosa County, was brutally murdered July 15, 1931, by a heavily armed white mob, organized by the county’s sheriff.

Utilizing Robin D.G. Kelley‘s seminal “Hammer and Hoe” as a source, Steven Niven for the Oxford Index writes:

“One of 15 children, Gray was born into a family with a strong radical tradition. His father, whose name and occupation are unknown, was the son of Alfred Gray, an African American state legislator in Perry County, Alabama, during Reconstruction who famously vowed to fight for the Constitution ‘until hell freezes over.’ A critic of both white racism and the inadequacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Alfred Gray recognized that his outspoken militancy came at a price. ‘I may go to hell,’ he told an interracial gathering in Uniontown in 1868, ‘my home is hell, but the white man shall go there with me’ (Kelley, 39).

“Ralph Gray, who was only one year old when Reconstruction ended in Alabama, grew up hearing stories of his grandfather’s radicalism. But like most of his black neighbors, he also suffered from the failure and suppression of that radicalism: working long hours on his parents’ farm from an early age and migrating to the rapidly industrializing city of Birmingham in search of work in the early 1890s before returning to Tallapoosa at age twenty-two, in 1895, to marry and become a tenant farmer.”

In 1931, a white merchant, John Langley, cheated Gray out of money from a federal loan that Gray had received. Gray filed a complaint with the state Agricultural Extension Service, after which Langley attempted – unsuccessfully – to beat him as Gray won that fight.

These experiences led Gray to read the Southern Worker (a predecessor) “whose articles on the plight of tenant farmers and sharecroppers and their efforts to fight back against unscrupulous merchants and landlords struck a chord with his own experiences,” writes Niven.

“Alongside his brother Tommy Gray, Ralph Gray joined the Communist Party and helped found a Tallapoosa branch of the Croppers’ and Farm Workers Union (CFWU) in April 1930. The timing was propitious, since it coincided with a decision by several landlords in the county to withdraw all cash and food advances from their tenants to try to force them to seek work in a recently opened sawmill that the landlords also operated. The CFWU’s demand that landlords restore the traditional cash advances struck a chord with Tallapoosa blacks, as did its program calling for a minimum wage of a dollar a day, the right of tenants to market their own crops, the extension of the school year for black children to nine months, and the provision of free school transportation.

“By July 1931, the Grays, assisted by Mack Coad, an unemployed black Communist steelworker from Birmingham, had increased CFWU membership in Tallapoosa to eight hundred but had achieved few concrete victories other than the restoration of cash advances for a few tenants. Nevertheless, the simple fact of black political organizing, not to mention the involvement of the Communist Party, terrified the region’s white power structure and made a violent confrontation almost inevitable. “On 15 July 1931 Tallapoosa County Sheriff Kyle Young deputized a posse of whites to break up a meeting near Camp Hill, where eighty CFWU members had gathered to discuss the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American youths falsely accused of raping two white women who had been sentenced to death by an all-white jury five days earlier. After assaulting many of the unionists, both male and female, the white vigilantes moved on to the home of Tommy Gray and attacked him and his wife, who suffered a fractured skull.

“The beatings ended after the timely arrival of an armed and extremely angry Ralph Gray. Upon discovering copies of the Southern Worker, the police arrested two of the unionists for possessing Communist Party literature. Unbowed, a crowd of 150 CFWU members gathered the following night at a church near Camp Hill. Expecting white vigilantes or the authorities-the two were barely distinguishable-Ralph Gray established a picket line and stood guard a quarter-mile from the meeting. When Sheriff Young, his deputy, and Camp Hill’s chief of police approached Gray, an argument ensued, and shots were exchanged. A New York Times report claiming that Gray fired first was based largely on police accounts.

“Within moments both Young and Gray were on the ground, the sheriff shot in the stomach, Gray unable to move because of several bullet wounds in his legs. While Young was rushed to a nearby hospital and a posse moved on to break up and fire on the CFWU meeting, Gray was left at the side of the road to die. Some comrades rescued him, however, took him home, and called a doctor.

“The physician responded to the call but also apparently alerted the police to Gray’s whereabouts, prompting the heavily armed white posse, now 150 strong, to descend on Gray’s home. There one of the posse forced a pistol into Gray’s mouth and shot him dead. After burning down his home, the mob then placed Gray’s brutally beaten and bullet-riddled body on the steps of the county courthouse, a clear warning to other Tallapoosa blacks of the consequences of joining the Croppers’ Union or the communists.

“In the days that followed, the police arrested as many as fifty-five union members, all of them black, charging most with weapons offenses but indicting five for murder. Many of the unionists were beaten by the police and white mobs, and an uncertain number were killed, though several escaped, fearing that the Camp Hill police chief would succeed in his professed desire to “kill every member of the ‘Reds’ … and throw them in the creek” (Kelley, 41).

“Efforts to stifle sharecropper activism briefly succeeded, but the worsening plight of tenant farmers throughout the South soon led to other organizing efforts, including the founding of five chapters of a revived CFWU, now known as the Sharecroppers Union (SCU), in Tallapoosa County in August 1931. Among the SCU’s first members in Tallapoosa was a young sharecropper named Ned Cobb, whose story was told pseudonymously by Theodore Rosengarten in the book All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (1974).

Gray was honored in party and left literature, most notably in Ruby Weems poem, “The Murder of Ralph Gray.”


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People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.